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A Game-Changer for Difficult Holiday Dinner Conversations

Discussing challenging topics isn't hard if you do this one thing.

Mark Nikellis/FreeImages
Source: Mark Nikellis/FreeImages

Do you have relatives on the “wrong” side of political issues? Will you be spending the holidays with them? Are you dreading conversations about politics and current events? How will you cope?

Two years ago, some of the great minds at Harvard University thought they had solved the problem of “constructive dialogue” by creating Holiday Placemats for Social Justice. Distributed by the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and the Freshman Dean’s Office, the placemats provided a script for talking about things like Muslim refugee immigration, and that year’s fracas at Yale over an email about Halloween costumes. Talking points on the placemats addressed questions like, “Why are Black students complaining? Shouldn’t they be happy to be in college?”

It was obvious to those in Harvard’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion that this was the only kind of question anyone could possibly ask regarding students calling professors “racist” and demanding they be fired for wondering whether college students (technically adults) could be left to make their own costume choices—and talk to each other if offended. (The rest of the placemat’s talking points addressed similarly simplistic caricatures of opposing arguments.)

Eventually, the Dean of Student Life apologized and Harvard’s president issued a statement criticizing Harvard officials “directing people—students, staff, faculty—what to say or what to think.” But how did things go so wrong?

The placemats revealed what was already widely known: There is an orthodox viewpoint at Harvard (and at other elite, liberal arts colleges)—a “right” way to think and speak about certain issues. It also uncovered the shallow and distorted interpretations of what and how people think when they disagree with campus orthodoxy. Worse still, it exposed an utter lack of interest in, and even a disdain for being even mildly curious about divergent ideas, opinions, and ways of thinking.

This way of framing political disagreement is, regardless of political affiliation, far too common. If you take for granted that the goal of any political conversation with people who disagree is to change the other person’s mind, then of course you will want a script for how to respond to the unquestionably wrong arguments coming from the other side—especially if you assume that yours is the only way decent people can think. In that game, you win if you change the other person’s mind, and you lose if you don’t; or maybe as long as the other person doesn’t change your mind, it’s a draw. Whichever way that goes, it doesn’t sound like fun for the holidays.

But there is a different possibility for political conversations at holiday gatherings, and even though it isn’t about debate, learning how to do it well makes people better debaters. It requires entirely changing the goal of the conversation and the rules of the game.

In this new game, you check your opinions at the door. (Don’t worry, you can have them back when you leave.) In the new game, the way you win is by being authentically curious about other people’s opinions, views, and positions, and about the thinking behind them. And you achieve an even bigger win if you come away from the conversation having changed your mind about something.

There is only one rule of this game: Genuinely listen.

This probably sounds like boring, old advice because you think you already know how to listen. You might even be really good at “active listening.” You look the speaker in the eye, nod, and smile, make tracking noises (like, “uh-huh,” and “right”), and from time to time, you repeat what you heard the other person say. (“What I’m hearing you say is…”) Have you ever been surprised, though, when you’re doing active listening, to find people getting annoyed with you, even when you’re doing it really well?

Here’s a tip: If you’re doing active listening, you’re not really listening. You’re just acting like you are. When you're genuinely listening, you don’t need to remember to do any of those things.

When we watch terrible actors act, what makes them so terrible is that we can tell they are acting. When we watch good actors, on the other hand, we don’t see them doing any acting; they just are. When you’re “actively listening,” the speaker can tell that you're doing listening. When you're genuinely listening, you’re not doing listening, you just are.

William Stringfellow wrote:

“Listening is a rare happening among human beings. You cannot listen to the word another is speaking if you are preoccupied with your appearance or impressing the other, or if you are trying to decide what you are going to say when the other stops talking, or if you are debating about whether the word being spoken is true or relevant or agreeable. Such matters may have their place, but only after listening to the word as the word is being uttered. Listening, in other words, is a primitive act of love...”

Existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom thinks there are four “ultimate concerns” for all human beings: death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness. It’s possible that our opinions, beliefs, and political views are driven by attempts to deal with one or more of these existential concerns.

Karen Barefoot/FreeImages
Source: Karen Barefoot/FreeImages

If you’re willing to try something new with your politically challenging relatives this holiday season, ask questions and listen—genuinely listen. Listen as an act of love. Assume they have good intentions. Be curious. See if you can uncover which ultimate concerns underlie even the most objectionable political views.

You might find you have more in common than you thought. ♦

Note: An earlier version of this article appears here. The author's views are her own and should not be considered the official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which the author is associated.


Cunningham, J.P. and Sabate, I. (December 17, 2015) Harvard Administrators Apologize for Controversial Placemats. The Harvard Crimson.

Christakis, E. (2016, October 28). My Halloween email led to a campus firestorm –– and a troubling lesson about self-censorship. Washington Post

Yalom, I (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

Stringfellow, W., & Kellermann, B. W. (1994). A keeper of the Word: selected writings of William Stringfellow. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.